Reversing a policy in place since the 1991 Gulf War, the military now will tell servicewomen that wearing the abaya robe ``is not mandatory but is strongly encouraged.'' Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, e-mailed the new policy to commanders in the region Saturday.
Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the Air Force's highest-ranking female fighter pilot, sued the Defense Department over the policy in December. Her lawsuit calls the policy unconstitutional and says it improperly forces American women to conform to the Saudis' religious and social customs. McSally's lawsuit did not inspire the policy change, Central Command spokesman Col. Rick Thomas said Tuesday. "The policy was under review before the lawsuit was filed, so the change was not a direct result of that," Thomas said.
McSally's lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, also challenges policies requiring servicewomen to be accompanied by a man whenever they leave their base and to ride in the back seat of a car. Thomas said those policies remain in effect. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Many restaurants, including U.S.-based fast food chains, have separate eating areas for single men and families including women and children.
The new policy is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough, said John Whitehead, a lawyer with the Rutherford Institute, a religious freedom group representing McSally. "What it says to us is that it's not been rescinded," Whitehead said. "It's like saying, 'You're equal to us but you can't eat in the same restaurant because you're strongly encouraged to eat at one more fitting with your lower class.'"
Whitehead said he has told McSally, who is now stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., not to comment. Officials at the Air Force base referred calls to the Rutherford Institute. Central Command, which oversees the military in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, had defended the policy. Central Command officials had said the requirements for servicewomen made them less likely to face harassment or attack.
McSally and other critics said the policy was ironic, since U.S. forces in Afghanistan have fought to remove the Taliban regime, which required all women to wear an even more restrictive covering called a burqa. The change in policy "sends a strong signal that we recognize that military women in Saudi Arabia should be treated as their male compatriots are treated and be allowed to pick their civilian clothing," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. Campbell's group is not a part of the lawsuit but has lobbied members of Congress to oppose the abaya rule.